Expert Commentary

Understanding the Chechen conflict: Research and reading list

2013 review of Chechnya-related scholarship and the conflict and political grievances there that continue to reverberate.

News that the primary suspects in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings are of Chechen heritage resurrected interest in historically troubled Chechnya, an autonomous republic in Russia’s North Caucasus Region. Suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s motive has yet to be confirmed, but questions abound about what role the ongoing violence between Russia and Chechen separatists might have played.

Of course, precise connections are speculative, and the media has already been criticized for making too quick a leap — and for perpetuating stereotypes about Chechens and Muslims in general. Charles King’s article in Foreign Affairs, “Not Your Average Chechen Jihadis,” provides further insights on these points.  London School of Economics scholar Jim Hughes offers compelling perspective.

Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, writes, “Chechnya and Russia have spent centuries at war and it isn’t surprising that this conflict, which has spanned generations, would provide fertile ground to incite and radicalize sympathizers wherever they happen to live.” Hill also provides an overview of the conflict in an interview titled “The Troubled History of Chechnya.”

Although the region has, for the most part, stayed out of the Western media headlines in recent years, reverberations of the conflict are still being felt both in the region and among the global diaspora. Thomas de Waal, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes in a recent article that “a low-level Islamist insurgency continues in and around Chechnya that takes dozens of lives each year.” For a sense of recent activity in the region, see “Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report,” published in March 2013 by Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The ongoing animosity between the largely Muslim ethnic Chechens and the Russian government dates back to Russo-Persian War (1804-1813), when Persia transferred the territory to Russian control. After years of attempted revolt by the Chechens, in 1944 Soviet Leader Josef Stalin deported the entire population of the North Caucasus — people in the republics of Ingushetia, Chechnya and North Ossetia — to Central Asia, claiming that they were collaborating with Nazi Germany.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechen separatists called for independence from Moscow and two bloody wars followed during the following decade. The second ended in 2000 when Russian forces captured the Chechen capital of Grozny. Since then, Chechen separatists have continued to engage in acts of terrorism, including the 2002 hostage drama at a Moscow theater, capture of a school in 2004 and the 2010 bombing of a Moscow metro station.

For more information on the Chechen conflict and recent Russian history, see the Council on Foreign Relations’ “Backgrounder on Chechen Terrorism” and the article “What to Read on Russian Politics” in Foreign Affairs.

Below is a selection of papers, reports and articles that can provide further context on the conflict:


“The Rise of Radical and Nonofficial Islamic Groups in Russia’s Volga Region”
Markedonov, Sergey. Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2013.

Summary: “In the two decades since the dissolution of the USSR, Russian and Western experts, human rights activists, and journalists have become accustomed to the political violence of the North Caucasus. Terrorist bombings and acts of sabotage in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya are perceived as somehow intrinsic to the region. But a recent tragedy in the Volga region suggests that this sort of violence — and the Islamist terrorists who perpetrate it — may not be confined to the Caucasus. To examine this increasingly serious situation, this report sheds light on the ideological sources and resources of radicalism in the Volga region, nonofficial Islamic movements’ support among the regional population, and opportunities for the potential growth of different forms of Islamist activities. It describes the origins of different nonofficial Islamic movements, as well as their post-Soviet development, ideology, and relationship with the authorities and official Muslim clergy. The report also offers practical approaches both for Russian domestic policy and for the U.S.-Russia security cooperation agenda.”


“Russia’s Homegrown Insurgency: Jihad in the North Caucasus”
Blank, Stephen J. Strategic Studies Institute, October 2012.

Summary: “The three papers offered in this monograph provide a detailed analysis of the insurgency and counterinsurgency campaigns being conducted by Islamist rebels against Russia in the North Caucasus. This conflict is Russia’s primary security threat, but it has barely registered on Western minds and is hardly reported in the West as well. To overcome this neglect, these three papers go into great detail concerning the nature of the Islamist challenge, the Russian response, and the implications of this conflict. This monograph, in keeping with SSI’s objectives, provides a basis for dialogue among U.S., European, and Russian experts concerning insurgency and counterinsurgency, which will certainly prove useful to all of these nations, since they will continue to be challenged by such wars well into the future. It is important for us to learn from the insurgency in the North Caucasus, because the issues raised by this conflict will not easily go away, even for the United States as it leaves Afghanistan.”


“Prisoners of the Caucasus: Russia’s Invisible Civil War”
King, Charles; Menon, Rajan. Foreign Affairs, July/August 2010.

Summary: “A pernicious mix of heavy-handed rule, corrupt governance, high unemployment, and militant Islam has reignited the Russian North Caucasus. Today, it is not only the old conflict zone of Chechnya but also its neighboring republics that are bordering on open civil war.”


“The New Chechen Jihad: Militant Wahhabism as a Radical Movement and a Source of Suicide Terrorism in Post-War Chechen Society”
Speckhard, Anne; Akhmedova, Khapta. Democracy and Security, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2006.

Abstract: The first act of Chechen suicide terrorism occurred on June 7, 2000, and was carried out by two young women. This inaugurated the migration of suicide terrorism from other conflict zones, into the Chechen conflict. How suicide terrorism as a tactic made its way into Chechnya is the topic of this paper, which provides an analysis of the events concerning the importation of militant ideologies and radical terrorist movements taking place since the Chechen declaration of independence as well as an empirical and theoretical analysis of Chechen suicide terrorism based on psycho-social interviews that were collected in Chechnya over a two-year time period from March 2003 to March 2005. We report data about suicide terrorism and the radicalization process from 32 interviews with family members and close associates of thirty-four Chechen suicide terrorists, inquiring about the terrorists’ backgrounds, experiences, religious, and psychological reasons leading up to their suicidal acts.


“Russia’s Ruinous Chechen War”
Menon, Rajan; Fuller, Graham. Foreign Affairs, March/April 2000.

Summary: “The Russian Federation is unraveling, and its war against Chechnya shows why. Moscow blames Islamist terrorists for the trouble there. But in doing so, it ignores Russia’s deeper afflictions. Russia has forced disparate ethnic groups to live together for decades but has proven inept at governing its wobbly empire. Now the fighting in Chechnya is leading dissatisfied nationalities to rethink their options — and their dependence on Russia. Chechnya was the first to rebel. It will not be the last.”


“Russia’s Invasion of Chechnya: A Preliminary Assessment”
Blank, Stephen J.; Tilford, Earl H. Jr. Strategic Studies Institute, January 1995.

Brief Synopsis: “On December 11, 1994, Russia invaded the secessionist republic of Chechnya in the North Caucasus. The aim was to suppress the republic’s government, led by General Dzhokar Dudayev, compel it to accept Moscow’s authority, and to force it to renounce its bid for independence and sovereignty. This invasion, which quickly turned into a military quagmire for Russia’s troops, triggered a firestorm of domestic opposition, even within the higher levels of the Ministry of Defense. As a result, the invasion has the most profound and troubling possible consequences for the stability of the Russian government, Russian democracy, and the future political-military relationship. This special report, based on what is already known, attempts to assess the discernible consequences of this invasion and provide a framework within which future developments can be assessed.”


“The North Caucasus: Russia’s Volatile Frontier”
Kuchins, Andrew C.; Markedonov, Sergey. Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 2011.

Synopsis: “Continued violence and unrest in the North Caucasus have created a major area of instability for the Russian Federation. Although Chechnya is relatively more stable, for now, under the brutal dictatorship of Ramzan Kadyrov, neighboring republics including Ingushetia, Dagestan, and others have experienced significant increases in the frequency of violence. The entire region is plagued by extreme poverty, high unemployment, and corrupt and often incompetent governance. Additionally, the prevalence of radical Islamic influences as well as growing competitive nationalist identities further increases the challenges for governance and stability. The Russian federal government seeks to insulate the rest of the country from the overflow of violence in this volatile region, but terrorist attacks in the past year on the Moscow Metro and again on the train between Moscow and St. Petersburg demonstrate how hard this is to manage. Kuchins, Malarkey, and Markedonov examine the socioeconomic trends in the region, the role of Islam and rise of radicalism throughout the Caucasus, nationalism and growing ethnic tensions, and the external factors influencing the North Caucasus.”


“Radical Islam in the North Caucasus: Evolving Threats, Challenges, and Prospects”
Markedonov, Sergey. Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 2010.

Synopsis: “As Kyrgyzstan plunges into crisis and the threat of a second Afghanistan in Central Asia looms large, the situation in the “Big Caucasus” seems less pressing and thus overshadowed. The worst scenarios predicted by analysts and politicians for the period of the 2008 August war have not been realized. The Russian attempt to “replace the regime” of Mikhail Saakashvili or apply the Georgian pattern in Ukraine, expected by many in the West, has not taken place. Neither have the attempts from the West (the United States, NATO, and others) to “nudge Georgia into a rematch,” which were expected in Moscow. Nonetheless, the Caucasus region remains one of the most vulnerable spaces in Eurasia. What challenges have turned the North Caucasus into a primary issue for Russia? Could we paint the political, ideological, and psychological portrait of the North Caucasus militant resistance? What resources do they have, and why has radicalism becomes popular? What external and internal factors determine their approaches? What mistakes did Russia, its society, and the Western observers make? And, finally, could the rise of Islamist militancy in the North Caucasus bring Moscow and Washington closer, regardless of the numerous foreign policy disputes existing between the two countries? This report is an attempt to answer these questions. It is based on open sources and interviews made during several trips to the North Caucasus republics, and it aims to promote more practical approaches to the situation there.”


“Conflicts in the Caucasus: Prospects for Resolution”
Testimony by Fiona Hill before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, December 2011.

Excerpt: “The Helsinki Commission has an important role to play in advancing peace and democracy throughout the world. Unfortunately today, even in what might be considered an enlightened time, many people still face war and oppression in their homes. One of the regions that still witnesses much conflict is the Caucasus, with disputes in Georgia, Russia, Chechnya and others. The quest for peace is ongoing and certainly a worthwhile goal. Today, I hope to hear from the witnesses about the latest developments in the Caucasus. I would like to hear about what actions the countries within the region are taking to ease tensions. I’d also like to learn what the other Helsinki Commission countries are doing to help, as well as what the role the witnesses believe that us here in the United States House of Representatives, where we could be helpful.”


“Connectedness, Social Support and Internalising Emotional and Behavioural Problems in Adolescents Displaced by the Chechen conflict”
Betancourt, Theresa S. et al. Disasters, 36(4), 2012.

Abstract: “The study investigated factors associated with internalising emotional and behavioural problems among adolescents displaced during the most recent Chechen conflict. A cross-sectional survey (N=183) examined relationships between social support and connectedness with family, peers and community in relation to internalising problems. Levels of internalising were higher in displaced Chechen youth compared to published norms among non-referred youth in the United States and among Russian children not affected by conflict. Girls demonstrated higher problem scores compared to boys. Significant inverse correlations were observed between family, peer and community connectedness and internalising problems. In multivariate analyses, family connectedness was indicated as a significant predictor of internalising problems, independent of age, gender, housing status and other forms of support evaluated. Sub-analyses by gender indicated stronger protective relationships between family connectedness and internalising problems in boys. Results indicate that family connectedness is an important protective factor requiring further exploration by gender in war-affected adolescents.”


Tags: terrorism, research roundup

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